Published August 11, 2008
Barack Obama’s neighborhood newspaper, the Hyde Park Herald, has a longstanding tradition of opening its pages to elected officials-from Chicago aldermen to state legislators to U.S. senators. Obama himself, as a state senator, wrote more than 40 columns for the Herald, under the title “Springfield Report,” between 1996 and 2004. Read in isolation, Obama’s columns from the state capital tell us little. Placed in the context of political and policy battles then raging in Illinois, however, the young legislator’s dispatches powerfully illuminate his political beliefs. Even more revealing are hundreds of articles chronicling Obama’s early political and legislative activities in the pages not only of the Hyde Park Herald, but also of another South Side fixture, the Chicago Defender.
Obama moved to Chicago in order to place himself in what he understood to be the de facto “capital” of black America. For well over 100 years, the Chicago Defender has been the voice of that capital, and therefore a paper of national significance for African Americans. Early on in his political career, Obama complained of being slighted by major media, like the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times. Yet extensive and continuous coverage in both the Chicago Defender and the Hyde Park Herald presents a remarkable resource for understanding who Obama is. Reportage in these two papers is particularly significant because Obama’s early political career-the time between his first campaign for the Illinois State Senate in 1995 and his race for U.S. Senate in 2004-can fairly be called the “lost years,” the period Obama seems least eager to talk about, in contrast to his formative years in Hawaii, California, and New York or his days as a community organizer, both of which are recounted in his memoir, Dreams from My Father. The pages of the Hyde Park Herald and the Chicago Defender thus offer entrée into Obama’s heretofore hidden world.
What they portray is a Barack Obama sharply at variance with the image of the post-racial, post-ideological, bipartisan, culture-war-shunning politician familiar from current media coverage and purveyed by the Obama campaign. As details of Obama’s early political career emerge into the light, his associations with such radical figures as Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Father Michael Pfleger, Reverend James Meeks, Bill Ayers, and Bernardine Dohrn look less like peculiar instances of personal misjudgment and more like intentional political partnerships. At his core, in other words, the politician chronicled here is profoundly race-conscious, exceedingly liberal, free-spending even in the face of looming state budget deficits, and partisan. Elected president, this man would presumably shift the country sharply to the left on all the key issues of the day-culture-war issues included. It’s no wonder Obama has passed over his Springfield years in relative silence.
THE CENTRALITY OF RACE
Any rounded treatment of Obama’s early political career has got to give prominence to the issue of race. Obama has recently made efforts to preemptively blunt discussion of the race issue, warning that his critics will highlight the fact that he is African American. Yet the question of race plays so large a role in Obama’s own thought and action that it is all but impossible to discuss his political trajectory without acknowledging the extent to which it engrosses him. Obama settled in Chicago with the declared intention of “organizing black folks.” His first book is subtitled “A Story of Race and Inheritance,” and his second book contains an important chapter on race. On his return to Chicago in 1991, Obama practiced civil rights law and for many years taught a seminar on racism and law at the University of Chicago. When he entered the Illinois senate, it was to represent the heavily (although not exclusively) minority 13th district on the South Side of Chicago. Indeed, race functions for Obama as a kind of master-category, pervading and organizing a wide array of issues that many Americans may not think of as racial at all. Understanding Obama’s thinking on race, for example, is a prerequisite to grasping his views on spending and taxation. Thus, we have no alternative but to puzzle out the place of race in Obama’s broader political outlook as well as in his legislative career.
When it comes to issues like affirmative action and set-asides, Obama is anything but the post-racial politician he’s sometimes made out to be. Take set-asides. In 1998, Obama endorsed Democratic gubernatorial hopeful John Schmidt, stressing to the Defender Schmidt’s past support for affirmative action and set-asides. Although Obama was generally pleased by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2003 acceptance of racial preferences at the University of Michigan, he underscored the danger that Republican-appointed justices might someday overturn the ruling. The day after the Michigan decision, Obama honored the passing of former Atlanta mayor Maynard Jackson Jr., eulogizing Jackson for creating model affirmative action and set-aside programs that spread across the nation.
In 2004, a U.S. District Court disallowed the ordinance under which Chicago required the use of at least 25 percent minority business enterprises and 5 percent women’s business enterprises on city-funded projects. In the immediate aftermath of the ruling, Obama and Jesse Jackson were among the prominent voices calling for a black leadership summit to plot strategy for a restoration of Chicago’s construction quotas. Obama and his allies succeeded in bringing back race-based contracting.
Prominent among those allies were two of Obama’s earliest and strongest political supporters, Hyde Park aldermen Toni Preckwinkle and Leslie Hairston. These two are known as fierce advocates of set-asides and key orchestrators of demonstrations and public-relations campaigns against businesses that question race-based contracting. When, in 2001, construction work was planned for South Lake Shore Drive, a major artery that connects Hyde Park to the rest of Chicago, Preckwinkle and Hairston seized the occasion to call for an extraordinary 70 percent minority quota on contracts for the project. They even demanded that, for the sake of race-based hiring, normal contractor eligibility requirements be waived. Then when work on South Lake Shore Drive was not awarded to minority contractors, a group consisting of Preckwinkle, Hairston, two neighboring aldermen, and numerous activists staged a surprise raid on the construction site, shutting it down and forcing the contractor to hire more blacks. A raid on a second construction site collapsed when several blacks were found already at work on the project. (The aldermen said these African-American laborers had been hired at the last minute to stymie their protest.)
Biographical treatments of Obama tend to stress the tenuous nature of his black identity-his upbringing by whites, his elite education, his home in Chicago’s highly integrated Hyde Park, personal tensions with black legislators, and questions about whether Obama is “black enough” to represent African Americans. These concerns over Obama’s racial identity are overblown. On race-related issues Obama has stood shoulder to shoulder with Chicago’s African-American politicians for years.
Occasionally, Obama has even gotten out in front of them. In 1999, for example, he made news by calling on the governor to appoint a minority to the Illinois Commerce Commission (ICC), a body that had previously attracted little notice among Chicago’s blacks. In 2000, the Chicago Defender named Obama one of a number of “Vanguards for Change,” citing him for “focusing on legislation in areas previously unexplored by the African-American community including his call that a person of color be appointed to the ICC.” Obama did bring a somewhat different backgr
ound and set of interests to the table. Yet the upshot was to expand the frontiers of race-based politics.
And the story doesn’t end with Obama’s support for set-asides. A Chicago Defender story of 1999 features a front-page picture of Obama beside the headline, “Obama: Illinois Black Caucus is broken.” In the accompanying article, although Obama denies demanding that black legislators march in perfect lockstep, he expresses anger that black state senators have failed to unite for the purpose of placing a newly approved riverboat casino in a minority neighborhood. The failed casino vote, Obama argues, means that the black caucus “is broken and needs to unite for the common good of the African-American community.” Obama continues, “The problem right now is that we don’t have a unified agenda that’s enforced back in the community and is clearly articulated. Everybody tends to be lone agents in these situations.”
Speaking in reply to Obama was Mary E. Flowers, an African-American state senator who apparently broke black caucus discipline and voted to approve the casino’s location in a nonminority area. Said Flowers: “The Black Caucus is from different tribes, different walks of life. I don’t expect all of the whites to vote alike. . . . Why is it that all of us should walk alike, talk alike and vote alike? . . . I was chosen by my constituents to represent them, and that is what I try to do.” Given Obama’s supposedly post-racial politics, it is notable that he should be the one demanding enforcement of a black political agenda against “lone agents,” while another black legislator appeals to Obama to leave her free to represent her constituents, black or white, as she sees fit.
Obama’s fight to unify the black caucus on the casino vote was undertaken in partnership with state senator Donne Trotter. Yet nearly every biographical account of Obama lavishes attention on Trotter’s claim that Obama was just a “white man in black face.” The significance of that bit of campaign hype, offered while Trotter was running against Obama for Congress, has been exaggerated, perhaps because Trotter’s epithet helps to defuse the notion that Obama himself practices race-based politics. Yet Obama does exactly that. His public legislative cooperation with Trotter, and with other black Illinois politicians, yields more insight into Obama’s political plans than any electoral rhetoric or private intra-black-caucus backbiting. To the extent that Obama can be accused of having shaky “black credentials,” that very accusation pushes him to practice race-conscious politics all the more energetically.
When the 2000 census revealed dramatic growth in Chicago’s Hispanic and Asian populations alongside a decline in the number of African Americans, the Illinois black caucus was alarmed at the prospect that the number of blacks in the Illinois General Assembly might decline. At that point, Obama stepped to the forefront of the effort to preserve as many black seats as possible. The Defender quotes Obama as saying that, “while everyone agrees that the Hispanic population has grown, they cannot expand by taking African-American seats.” As in the casino dispute, Obama stressed black unity, pushing a plan that would modestly increase the white, Hispanic, and Asian population in what would continue to be the same number of safe black districts. As Obama put it: “An incumbent African-American legislator with a 90 percent district may feel good about his reelection chances, but we as a community would probably be better off if we had two African-American legislators with 60 percent each.”
Obama’s intensely race-conscious approach may surprise Americans who know him primarily through his keynote address at the Democratic National Convention of 2004. When Obama so famously said, “There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America-there’s the United States of America,” most Americans took him to be advocating a color-blind consciousness of the kind expressed in Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream that his children would one day be judged, not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. Anyone who understood Obama’s words that way should know that this is not the whole story. In an essay published in 1988 entitled “Why Organize? Problems and Promise in the Inner City,” Obama tried to make room for both “accommodation and militancy” in black political engagement. He wrote,
The debate as to how black and other dispossessed people can forward their lot in America is not new. From W.E.B. DuBois to Booker T. Washington to Marcus Garvey to Malcolm X to Martin Luther King, this internal debate has raged between integration and nationalism, between accommodation and militancy, between sit-down strikes and board-room negotiations. The lines between these strategies have never been simply drawn, and the most successful black leadership has recognized the need to bridge these seemingly divergent approaches.
However his views may have evolved in the ensuing 20 years, Obama surely knew that the King-like rhetoric of his keynote address would be taken by most Americans as a repudiation of the kind of race-based politics he and his closest allies have consistently practiced throughout his electoral career. It’s difficult to gauge the extent to which Obama may have consciously permitted this misunderstanding to take hold, or the extent to which he still believes that the opposition between “integration and nationalism, between accommodation and militancy” is a false one. Neither alternative is particularly encouraging.
LIBERALS AND RADICALS
Throughout the 2008 campaign, Obama has made a point of refusing the liberal label. While running for Congress against Bobby Rush in late 1999 and early 2000, however, Obama showed no such compunction. At a November 1999 candidate forum, the Hyde Park Herald reported that “there was little to distinguish” the candidates, who “struggled to differentiate themselves” ideologically. Acknowledged Obama, “[W]e’re all on the liberal wing of the Democratic party.” Indeed, the common political ideology of the candidates was a theme in Herald coverage throughout the race. Rush’s background suggests what that ideology was: A Chicago icon and former Black Panther, Rush received a 90 percent rating in 2000, and a 100 percent rating in 1999, from the liberal Americans for Democratic Action. Both years the American Conservative Union rated him at zero percent.
So how exactly did these two liberal candidates “struggle to differentiate” themselves in debate? During a candidate forum, for example, when Rush bragged that since entering Congress, he hadn’t voted to approve a single defense budget, Obama pounced, accusing Rush of having voted for the Star Wars missile defense system the previous year. Since that contest, Obama’s liberalism hasn’t exactly been a secret to the folks back home. In 2002, Obama himself could speak hopefully of plans “to move a progressive agenda” through the state legislature, and local observers commonly identified Obama as a “progressive.” When it endorsed him for the U.S. Senate in 2004, the Chicago Defender proclaimed Obama “represents renewal of the liberal, humanitarian cause.” The Defender went on to assure readers that Obama would support “progressive action” in Washington.
The most interesting characterization came from Obama himself, who laid out his U.S. Senate campaign strategy for the Defender in 2003: “[A]s you combine a strong African-American base with progressive white and Latino voters, I think it is a recipe for success in the primary and in the general election.” Putting the point slightly differently, Obama added, “When you combine . . .an
energized African-American voter base and effective coalition-building with other progressive sectors of the population, we think we have a recipe for victory.” Obama consciously constructed his election strategy on a foundation of leftist ideology and racial bloc voting.
The overwhelming majority of Obama’s “Springfield Report” columns in the Hyde Park Herald deal with state or local issues. It’s interesting, therefore, that one of the tiny handful of Obama columns explicitly dealing with national politics is a 2000 column pleading with readers to support Al Gore rather than Ralph Nader for president. Obama opens his column noting that he’s heard many people complain that Al Gore and George Bush are beholden to the same “big money interests.” In pressing his case for Gore-which hinges on Republican/Democrat differences on issues like Supreme Court appointments, abortion, affirmative action, the environment, and school vouchers-Obama makes a point of agreeing with some of Nader’s criticisms of the major parties. Obama raises no objections to Nader’s agenda and implicitly presents himself as someone who might support Nader, were it not for the danger of a wasted vote aiding the Republicans. It’s also striking that so many of the policy considerations Obama counts as decisive are classic sixties-derived issues-precisely the sort of polarizing culture-war conflicts Obama nowadays claims to have transcended. In the end, Obama needn’t have worried. Hyde Park voted 91 percent for Gore, 6 percent for Bush, and 3 percent for Nader.
Obama’s strong liberalism is nowhere more evident than on the subject of crime. Throughout his Illinois State Senate career, crime was a top Obama concern. Crime is also a key contact-point between Obama and his most celebrated radical associate, William Ayers. We’ve heard a good deal of late about Ayers’s Weatherman terrorism back in the 1960s and his lack of repentance. Ayers refuses to answer questions about his relationship with Obama, while Obama has dismissed Ayers as just “a guy who lives in my neighborhood.” Yet several Obama-Ayers connections are known: Obama’s 1995 political debut at the home of Ayers and his wife (and fellow former terrorist) Bernardine Dohrn, Obama’s joint service with Ayers on the board of the Woods Fund of Chicago, a couple of appearances with Ayers on academic panels, and what the New York Times called Obama’s “rave review” (not actually a full review, but a warm endorsement) of Ayers’s book on juvenile justice, which Obama dubbed “a searing and timely account” in the Chicago Tribune.
For all the attention, the actual content of Ayers’s 1997 book, A Kind and Just Parent, as well as the political context of Obama’s interest in it, have so far passed unremarked. Obama supporters paint Ayers as having mellowed since his radical days, pointing to his wonkish interests. Yet Ayers’s radicalism pervades his book on Chicago’s juvenile court system. Founded in 1899 (long before juvenile murder rates shot off the charts), Chicago’s juvenile court was the first in the world, intended to serve as “a kind and just parent” to offenders. Ayers’s title, he explained in the book, is meant to “bristle with irony” as a commentary on an American “society out of control.” Ayers expressed the same sentiment more bluntly in an interview published in the New York Times shortly after 9/11, when he not only dismissed the notion of the United States as a “just and fair and decent place,” but said the claim “makes me want to puke.” A Kind and Just Parent is a thoughtful, well-informed, and beautifully written book, which provides revealing and sometimes disturbing glimpses of life at a Chicago juvenile detention facility. The book also virtually defines the phrases “liberal guilt” and “soft on crime.” Ayers agon-izes over a high school field trip years ago, on which he and other white students toured a juvenile court system largely populated by black boys. When recounting horrific crimes-and even his own mugging-Ayers focuses on the terrified insecurity of the perpetrators, rather than the harm they inflict. Testifying at the trial of a young felon he’d been tutoring, Ayers calls him “nervous, a little shy . . . eager to please.” The prosecutor responds: “Would you call shooting someone eight times at close range ‘eager to please?'” Actually, Ayers effectively does do this, opening his book with the claim that a young murderer had “slavishly followed the orders” of his gang leader, rather than acting of his own free will.
Ayers opposes trying even the most vicious juvenile murderers as adults. Beyond that, he’d like to see the prison system itself essentially abolished. Unsatisfied with mere reform, Ayers wants to address the deeper “structural problems of the system.” Drawing explicitly on Michel Foucault, a French philosopher beloved of radical academics, Ayers argues that prisons artificially impose obedience and conformity on society, thereby creating a questionable distinction between the “normal” and the “deviant.” The unfortunate result, says Ayers, is to leave the bulk of us feeling smugly superior to society’s prisoners. Home detention, Ayers believes, might someday be able to replace the prison. Ayers also makes a point of comparing America’s prison system to the mass-detention of a generation of young blacks under South African Apartheid. Ayers’s tone may be different, but the echoes of Jeremiah Wright’s anti-prison rants are plain.
Given his decision to recommend Ayers’s book in the Tribune, it’s fair to say that Obama is at least broadly sympathetic to this perspective. When Obama offers examples of ill-conceived legislation, he often points to building prisons: Instead of building another prison, why not expand health care entitlements? Biographer David Mendell cites Obama’s irritation with fellow legislators who “grandstand” by passing tough-on-crime legislation, while letting bills designed to bring “structural change” languish. Debating Bobby Rush in 2000, Obama bragged that he had “consistently fought against the industrial prison complex.” Obama’s Hyde Park Herald column echoes these points.
The most intriguing thread linking Obama, Ayers, and crime, however, runs through Ayers’s wife, Bernardine Dohrn. Dohrn founded the Children and Family Justice Center at Northwestern University, and along with her associates there, she regularly and energetically opposes “get tough” crime laws. Ayers draws on his wife’s wisdom in A Kind and Just Parent, and Dohrn, like her husband, publicly presents her work on juvenile justice not as a repudiation of her youthful radicalism, but as a continuation of it.
The Ayers-Dohrn-Obama nexus was jolted into action in late 1997 and early 1998, when a major juvenile justice reform bill was introduced in the Illinois General Assembly. Written by prosecutors and sponsored by a Republican ex-prosecutor, the bill was neither simplistic nor partisan. Well aware of evidence that sending juveniles to adult prisons can backfire and actually raise recidivism rates, sponsors met rehabilitation-minded critics halfway. The proposed bill was an early example of “blended sentencing,” in which juveniles who have committed serious crimes are given both a juvenile sentence and a parallel adult sentence. So long as the offender keeps his nose clean, doesn’t violate parole, and participates in community-based rehabilitation, he never has to serve his adult sentence. But if the offender violates the provisions of his juvenile sentence, the adult punishment kicks in. That gives young offenders a powerful incentive to do right, and puts toughness at the service of offering kids a second chance.
Blended sentencing is generally viewed as an innovative compromise. To those on the far left, however, blended sentencing is just another mean-spirited “get tough” crime meas
ure in disguise. That’s why, when the Illinois blended sentencing bill was introduced in 1997, both Obama and Bernardine Dohrn were cited by the Chicago Sun-Times as key local critics of the bill. Steven A. Drizin, an associate of Dohrn’s center (who is thanked in Ayers’s book) was a member of the study commission that helped produce the bill, yet remained an energetic critic, not only of blended sentencing, but of nearly every other prosecutor-favored provision in the bill.
Meanwhile, Obama worked closely with the Illinois Black Legislative Caucus to slow the bill’s progress, expressing skepticism about the blended sentencing provisions. While one report speaks of Obama negotiating with Cook County state’s attorney Richard Devine for a compromise, there is good reason to believe that Obama’s actual aim was to scuttle the entire bill. We have this on the authority of someone who may very well be Michelle Obama herself. Michelle Obama organized a University of Chicago panel about Bill Ayers’s crime book in November 1997, just as the battle over the juvenile justice bill was heating up. That panel featured appearances by some of the key figures discussed in Ayers’s book, along with Obama himself, who was identified in the press release as “working to block proposed legislation that would throw more juvenile offenders into the adult system.” In effect, then, this public event was a joint Obama-Ayers effort to sink the juvenile justice bill-Obama’s decision to plug Ayers’s book in the Chicago Tribune the following month was part of the same political effort.
In January 1998, a front-page headline in the Defender touted Obama’s claim that the juvenile justice bill might be on the verge of failure. Obama hoped that black caucus opposition to the sentencing provisions might be matched by concerns among some Republicans that the bill could force expensive jail construction (based on the prospect that the deterrent effect of blended sentencing might fail, thereby forcing more juveniles into adult prisons). Obama’s hopes were wildly off-base. In the end, the juvenile justice bill passed overwhelmingly. Given his ambitions for higher office, Obama was no doubt reluctant to vote against the final bill. A last-minute, minor and uncontroversial adjustment to the blended-sentencing provisions by the governor appears to have provided enough political cover for the bill’s sharpest critics including Obama to come around and support it.
Also in 1998, according to the Hill, a Washington newspaper, Obama was one of only three Illinois state senators to vote against a proposal making it a criminal offense for convicts on probation or on bail to have contact with a street gang. A year later, on a vote mandating adult prosecution for aggravated discharge of a firearm in or near a school, Obama voted “present,” and reiterated his opposition to adult trials for even serious juvenile offenders. In short, when it comes to the issue of crime, Obama is on the far left of the political spectrum and very much in synch with his active political allies Ayers and Dohrn.
Obama’s signature crime legislation was his effort to combat alleged racial discrimination by the Illinois police. In 2003, the Defender said Obama had “made a career” out of his annual battle for a bill against racial profiling. For years, profiling legislation was bottled up by the Illinois senate’s Republican leader. When senate control shifted to the Democrats in 2003, Obama’s racial profiling bill finally passed-just in time to give his drive for the U.S. Senate nomination a major boost. At the time, Obama touted his profiling bill as “a model for the nation.” It’s also said that Obama showed a willingness to listen to police during the negotiations that led to the final bill. With the Democrats in control, however, the police had little choice but to work with Obama. As Obama himself made clear at the time, the police never abandoned their opposition to the bill.
Police doubts were entirely justified. Obama’s bill is a deeply flawed example of precisely the sort of grievance-driven race-based politics that fuels legislation on affirmative action and minority set-asides. All of these “remedies” falsely leap from statistical evidence of racial disparities to claims of discrimination. In the case of racial profiling, disproportionate police stops of black or Hispanic motorists in no way prove discrimination.
In her path-breaking 2001 study, “The Myth of Racial Profiling,” Heather Mac Donald assembled the evidence. It showed that racially disparate patterns of drug-interdiction stops in New Jersey, one of the first states supposedly proven to have practiced racial profiling, in fact reflected racial differences in the transport of drugs. Drug trafficking is not evenly spread across the population (as profiling activists improperly assume), and for the most part New Jersey police were simply going where the drugs were. Wrote Mac Donald, “When white club owners, along with Israelis and Russians, dominated the Ecstasy trade, that’s whom the cops were arresting.” When the big shipments shifted to minority neighborhoods, arrests followed. That’s good crime intelligence, not racism. The reason virtually every major law-enforcement organization opposes racial-profiling legislation is that these bills invariably fail to provide benchmarks based on actual group-based variations in crime rates. Without such benchmarks, there is no basis for leaping from statistical disparities in traffic-stops to accusations of police racism.
Obama’s February 16, 2000, Hyde Park Herald column was a textbook example of the racial-profiling fallacies Mac Donald exposed. Arguing for legislation to require the collection of traffic-stop data by race, Obama made the bogus leap from disproportionate traffic-stops and searches to accusations of racism using the same, baseline-free ACLU-supplied statistics Mac Donald critiqued. Obama then made a still greater leap: “Racial profiling may explain why incarceration rates are so high among young African Americans-law enforcement officials may be targeting blacks and other minorities as potential criminals and are using the Vehicle Code as a tool to stop and search them.” The notion that the high black incarceration rates are due to racist traffic stops is utterly fanciful. (Mac Donald lays out the evidence not only in her profiling piece, but also in a second important study, published this year, “Is the Criminal-Justice System Racist?”) Obama’s column takes a leaf right out of Jeremiah Wright’s playbook, stoking the worst sort of race-based conspiracy theories.
Indeed, Obama’s racial profiling crusade shows his political alliance with Wright, Pfleger, and Meeks in action. We know from Obama’s 1988 “Why Organize?” essay that a long-term goal of his was to politically organize “liberationist” black churches:
Nowhere is the promise of organizing more apparent than in the traditional black churches. Possessing tremendous financial resources, membership, and-most important-values and biblical traditions that call for empowerment and liberation, the black church is clearly a slumbering giant in the political and economic landscape of cities like Chicago.
We also know from a 1995 profile that Obama viewed his legislative role as an extension of his grass-roots organizing career. So it’s unsurprising to see in the Hyde Park Herald of February 28, 2001, that Obama’s “grass-roots lobbying effort” for racial profiling legislation is to feature not only the ACLU and the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund, but also appearances by Meeks and Pfleger. The Chicago Defender notes the additional presence of Reverend Michael Sykes, an associate pastor of Wright’s Trinity United Church of Christ. So Obama’s drive for racial profiling legislation brought to fruition his long-time goal
of politically organizing Chicago’s most liberationist black churches. Of course Wright, Meeks, and Pfleger are known for their demagogic accusations of white racism. Obama’s racial profiling bill fit squarely in that tradition. As with Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, it’s evident that the liberationist preachers were also his valued political allies.
Like other racial-profiling activists, Obama frequently cites New Jersey’s experience as proof of his case. A little-noticed 2007 study by University of Chicago professor Paul Heaton sheds some fascinating light on the profiling crusade in that state. Heaton found that as a result of anti-profiling reforms, annual arrests of minorities for motor vehicle theft in New Jersey declined by 20-40 percent. Unfortunately, during the same period, motor vehicle theft increased in minority areas. Heaton concluded: “It appears that official and public scrutiny of profiling behavior by police can lead to substantial reductions in arrests of minorities, although this enforcement reduction may carry the unintended consequence of encouraging crime in minority areas.” In other words, Heaton’s work tends to corroborate Heather Mac Donald’s analysis-not Barack Obama’s. Disproportionate traffic stops are largely a response to disproportionate crime, while using simplistic statistics to falsely accuse police of racism yields more crime, not less.
A NEW WAR ON POVERTY
Important though it is to Obama, the crime issue runs a distant second to his deepest passion: social welfare legislation. “Big government liberal,” “redistributionist”-call him what you like, Obama’s fondest hope is to lead America into another war on poverty. Everything in his state-legislative career points in this direction, and Obama calls for a renewal of expensive national anti-poverty programs in his book The Audacity of Hope. True, Obama’s promotion of government partnerships with private-sector housing contractors (like Antoin “Tony” Rezko) was supposed to open up novel, post-Great Society solutions to the problem of poverty. Yet, as a devastating Boston Globe report on Obama’s Illinois housing policy recently showed, the results of Obama’s new war on poverty are just as counterproductive as those of the old war on poverty. Neighborhoods supposedly renovated now lie deserted by the private developers who took Obama’s government handouts and ran-quickly building or renovating housing units, but failing to maintain them.
Race and crime issues excepted, Obama’s Illinois legislative career as covered in the newspapers essentially boils down to a list of spending measures. Many of Obama’s proposed expenditures were tough to oppose. Because he was working under a Republican majority for the bulk of his time in the Illinois State Senate, Obama became a master of incrementalism. His pattern was to find the smallest, most appealing spending proposal possible, pass it, then build toward more spending on the same issue. An Obama bill exempting juvenile prisoners from paying for nonemergency medical or dental services isn’t something you’d want to vote against. Obama’s small, targeted spending measures tended to pass and to be followed by more: Obama called for a $30 million youth crime prevention package; Obama requested additional funds to expand the regulation of electrical utilities; Obama asked for $50 million over five years to overcome the “digital divide”; Obama proposed to fund anger management classes for children age 5-13; Obama ran for Congress promising to restore federal block grants to pre-Republican levels, and so on.
In a 2007 speech to Al Sharpton’s National Action Network (NAN), Obama touted his Illinois legislative experience and challenged members of Sharpton’s group to find a candidate with a better record of supporting the issues they cared about. (Incidentally, Sharpton named Jeremiah Wright’s daughter Jeri Wright, publisher-editor of Wright’s Trumpet Newsmagazine, to head NAN’s new Chicago chapter in 2007. He named Wright’s successor, Reverend Otis Moss III, its vice president.) Intrigued by Obama’s challenge to Sharpton’s group, Randolph Burnside, a professor of political science, and Kami Whitehurst, a doctoral candidate, both at the Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, decided to put Obama’s Illinois record to the test. The two scholars made a study of bills sponsored and cosponsored by Obama during his Illinois State Senate career.
Published in the Journal of Black Studies, the results are striking. Burnside and Whitehurst produced two bar graphs, one representing bills of which Obama was the main sponsor, arranged by subject, and a second displaying bills Obama joined as a cosponsor. In the chart depicting bills of which Obama was the main sponsor, the bar for “social welfare” legislation towers over every other category. In the chart of Obama’s cosponsored bills, social welfare legislation continues to far exceed all other categories, although now crime-related bills are visibly present in second place, with regulation and tax bills close behind. According to Burnside and Whitehurst, other than social welfare and a bit of government regulation, “Obama devoted very little time to most policy areas.”
This brings us to what is perhaps the most striking result of our tour through Obama’s Springfield days. Conventional wisdom has it that John McCain holds a political advantage over Obama on war and foreign policy issues, while Obama is favored to handle the economy. Yet Obama’s economic experience is largely limited to social welfare spending. Indeed, precisely because of his penchant for spending, Obama’s fingerprints are all over Illinois’s burgeoning fiscal crisis.
The Illinois state budget has been in an ever-widening crisis since 2001. In an April 2007 report, a committee of top Chicago business leaders warned that the state was “headed toward fiscal implosion.” Illinois’s unfunded pension debt is the highest in the nation, while Illinois is sixth in the nation in per capita tax-supported debt. Yet the Illinois General Assembly-now controlled by Obama’s Democratic allies-churns out at will exactly the sort of spending programs Obama pushed for, with only partial success, under the Republicans. The result is a fast-growing gap between revenues and expenditures (unimpeded by the statutory requirement of a balanced budget), rising fears of fiscal meltdown, finger-pointing, and political gridlock.
A watershed moment in Illinois’s fiscal decline came in 2002, when crashing receipts and Democratic reluctance to enact spending cuts forced Republican governor George Ryan to call a special legislative session. While Ryan railed at legislators for refusing to rein in an out-of-control budget, the Chicago Tribune spoke ominously of an “all-consuming state budget crisis.” Unwilling to cut back on social welfare spending, Obama’s chief partner and political mentor, senate Democratic leader Emil Jones, came up with the idea of borrowing against the proceeds of a windfall tobacco lawsuit settlement due to the state.
This idea sent the editorial pages of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Chicago Tribune into a tizzy. Editorialists hammered cut-averse legislators for “chickening out,” for making use of “tricked-up numbers,” for a “cowardly abdication of responsibility,” and for sacrificing the state’s bond rating to “short-term political gains.” As critics repeatedly pointed out, borrowing against a onetime tobacco settlement-instead of balancing the budget with regular revenues-would be a recipe for long-term fiscal disaster.
What was Obama doing while all this was going on? He was promoting the tobacco securitization plan in his Hyde Park Herald column, railing against the governor in the Defender for balancing the budget “on the back of the poor,” and voting to override cuts in treasured programs like bilingual
education. Actually, far from “balancing the budget on the backs of the poor,” the governor had trimmed evenly across all the state’s most expensive programs. In the end, Ryan did force a number of cuts, yet the resistance of Obama and his allies took a toll. When, just a year later, Democrats added control of the governorship and state senate to their existing control of the house, they revealed that the state deficit had reached $5 billion-far larger than most had feared. Since then it’s been a swift downhill tumble toward fiscal implosion for Illinois. Now ruling, the Democrats have continued their profligate ways, pushing the state’s budget woes to new heights.
Illinois’s fate may foreshadow the nation’s. Obama’s small and carefully targeted spending bills were expressly designed to win passage by a Republican-controlled state senate. But if Obama takes the presidency with a Democratic Congress at his back, we’ll likely see a grand-scale version of the fiscal mayhem Obama and his colleagues brought to Illinois.
Obama’s overarching political program can be described as “incremental radicalism.” On health care, for example, his long-term strategy in Illinois was no secret. He repeatedly proposed a state constitutional amendment mandating universal health care. Prior to the 2002 budget crisis, Obama’s plan was to use the windfall tobacco settlement to finance the transition to the new system. That would have effectively hidden the huge cost of universal care from the taxpayer until it was too late. Yet Obama touted his many tiny expansions of government-funded health care as baby steps along the path to his goal. The same strategy will likely be practiced-if more subtly-on other issues. Obama takes baby-steps when he has to, but in a favorable legislative environment, Obama’s redistributionist impulses will have free rein, and a budget-busting war on poverty (not to mention entitlement spending) will surely rise again.
Obama’s vaunted reputation for bipartisanship is less than meets the eye. The Illinois legislature has long been home to a number of moderate Republicans, less fiscally conservative than their colleagues, many from districts where the parties are closely balanced. It was easy enough to get a few of these Republicans to sign onto small, carefully tailored spending bills directed toward particularly sympathetic recipients. The trouble with Obama’s bipartisanship is that it was largely a one-way street. Overcoming initial opposition from Catholic groups, for instance, Obama cosponsored an incremental bill on abortion, requiring hospitals to inform rape victims of morning-after pills. Yet rejecting compromise with the other side, Obama voted against bills that would have curbed partial-birth abortions. In other words, Obama is bipartisan so long as that means asking Republicans to take incremental steps toward his own broader goals. When it comes to compromising with the other side, however, Obama says “take a hike.” Obama voted against a bill that would have allowed people in possession of a court order protecting them from some specific individual to carry a concealed weapon in self-defense. The bill failed on a 29-27 vote. Bipartisanship for thee, but not for me: That’s how Obama ended up with the most liberal voting record in the U.S. Senate.
The real Obama? You see him in those charts. Fundamentally, he is a big-government redistributionist who wants above all to aid the poor, particularly the African-American poor. Obama is eager to do so both through race-specific programs and through broad-based social-welfare legislation. “Living wage” legislation may be economically counterproductive, and Obama-backed housing experiments may have ended disastrously, yet Obama is committed to large-scale government solutions to the problem of poverty. Obama’s early campaigns are filled with declarations of his sense of mission-a mission rooted in his community organizing days and manifest in his early legislative battles. Recent political back flips notwithstanding, Barack Obama does have an ideological core, and it’s no mystery at all to any faithful reader of the Chicago Defender or the Hyde Park Herald.
— Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.